How to discover and articulate your firm's values

16th Apr 2018
Co-founder, VP Product Marketing Karbon
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The concept of having business values is nothing new for an accounting firm. But all too often, generic values are chosen without much thought, and rarely referred back to during day-to-day firm operations.

This is detrimental because values that are articulated specifically for your firm serve as a crucial tool. They act as principles that can accelerate your team's progress and are foundational to everything that gets done. They guide your team’s internal conduct and their relationships with clients, partners and stakeholders.

For everyone on your team, they answer the question: "What are the rules by which I should conduct myself, do my job, collaborate with my team, and work with our clients?"

When articulating your own firm values, remember that they should serve to clarify your unique identity and culture, provide a barometer to measure potential job seekers, and act as a rallying point for your employees.

They are written in your company's voice and embody the beliefs of your founders or managing partners. They should be understood, known and adhered to by all within the firm.

Value Types

Firm values come in four types. Aspirational values are those that your team might like to have, but currently don't exist. Accidental values are those that currently exist but aren't meaningful and possibly constraining. Permission-to-play values are those that represent the bare minimum behavioural and social standards required of any employee. They aren't unique or differentiating and should be held inherently by any person you interact with.

But core values are the ones that matter. They are long-lasting, unique, and are deeply-ingrained principles that guide all of your staff's actions. It is these core values that need to be discovered and articulated as your firm values.

Quantity and quality

Your firm values should be short and sweet. Most firms have anywhere between three-to-seven values that each typically start with a verb and consist of only a few words each.

They typically reflect the values of the company's founders, are foundational and authentic, long-lasting and unique. If you are unsure that an identified value is one to keep, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does it represent me (us)?
  • Will employees live by these in 20+ years?
  • If they become a disadvantage, would we keep them?
  • Does it convey the image we want, expect and envision?

How to find your values

There are different methods to discover and determine the values of your firm. Three simple options include:

  • Inwards: Think of the key people on your team. What traits do you admire? Why? What do others admire? Why? Combine and review.
  • Brainstorm: Conduct a time constrained open brainstorm. Review the list, discuss, catalog, and choose/create a value that represents each.
  • External: Review a long list of value statements and rank order each. Do individually, review results as a team and determine as a group.

However, my favourite and recommended method is defined by Gino Wickman, the author of Traction. To complete, follow these steps:

  • Step 1: Alignment. Get the leadership team together and make sure everyone understands what core values mean for the firm and the plan to derive them.
  • Step 2: Brainstorm. With the leadership team together, have each person choose three team members they would clone.
  • Step 3: Characteristics. Now list out the qualities of these people that make them so valuable. Be as exhaustive as possible.
  • Step 4: Narrow down. Create a master list of the qualities, group and circle the ones that are the most important to you and your firm.
  • Step 5: Selection. Rank the list as a team. Discuss which are truly core. Perhaps do a quick voting exercise to thin down the list. Choose between three to seven core values that are representative.
  • Step 6: Marinate. Let the values simmer for a few weeks, reconvene as a group, and sign-off on the final set.
  • Step 7: Communicate. Create and execute a communication plan to the team. Incorporate them in everything you do: workspace, culture, team interactions and more.

Communication and adherence

While the identification of your values might be conducted in a single moment in time, the communication and adherence of them needs to happen every day by everyone in your firm.

Take the time to write them down and share them with your team regularly. Refer to them when interviewing or hiring a new staff member, and recognise and understand them across partnership relationships in the course of doing business.

Treat your firm’s values as something sacred that are never compromised and always maintained.

When values are right for your firm and are articulated, they can act as one of your most useful operational tools, ensuring you never stray from the path you initially set out to achieve as an accounting firm.

Once you have explored the four foundations of your accounting firm by defining your purposemissionvision and values, you can work on pointing your team towards a clear and singular objective. This is the starting point for your short and long-term planning and effective execution.

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